Photo by: AlMare, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A few kilometers from Pompeii is the archaeological site of Stabiae, the ancient name of Castellammare di Stabia. Dominating the Gulf of Naples, it enjoys an excellent position thanks to its terraces overlooking the sea. Here, in Roman times, the great patricians used to vacation and built large and sumptuous panoramic villas.
Stabiae is little known to most, overshadowed by the fame of Pompeii and Herculaneum, yet it is a very important town for the ancient Vesuvian area. It suffered the fate of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Ancient Stabiae was one of the destinations chosen by the Roman aristocracy for stays on the Gulf of Naples. Its ancient territory extended into the area occupied by the current municipalities of Castellammare di Stabia, Gragnano, Lettere, Sant’Antonio Abate, Santa Maria La Carità and Casola of Naples.
The villas are located on the Varano plateau: they were built after the invasion of Silla in 89 BC. Here the wealthy Roman patricians used to relax enjoying the wonderful panorama, since the luxurious villas faced directly onto the sea. But with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 BC they were abandoned. The area has 8 villas: Villa di Anteros, Villa del Pastore, Villa del Belvedere, Villa del Petraro, Villa del Filosofo, the one known as the Second Complex, Villa Arianna and Villa San Marco. Currently it is possible to visit only some of these villas that have not yet been fully investigated.
The excavation of the site began with the Bourbons in 1749 and is still ongoing today. The archaeological excavations have brought to light in particular three luxury villas and a district with spas: the Villa S. Marco which, thanks to its 11,000 m2 surface, is one of the largest residential Roman villas; Villa Arianna, which is the oldest and owes its name to the large painting depicting Ariadne abandoned by Theseus; the villa called ‘Second complex’, separated from Villa Arianna by a small road. These three villas are worth visiting for their beauty and historical importance and for the fact that they are less known but equally important as those of the most famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Villa San Marco takes its name from an 18th century chapel that stood nearby: it extends over approximately 11,000 square meters, of which 6000 are accessible today. The villa consists of an entrance reserved for guests, after which you enter a beautiful atrium where you can admire elements such as the system for collecting rainwater and the “lararium”, that is the altar for adoration of the Lares; the thermal plant divided into “calidarium”, “frigidarium” and “tiepidarium”; the large peristyle that surrounds the garden with the swimming pool of about 30 meters. The nymphaeum (the fountain that fed the swimming pool) was decorated with refined mosaics that can be admired at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. From the peristerio you enter the kitchen, where there is still a large brick counter with a hob and a tub. The lateral areas are decorated with different frescoes and behind it is the large dining room, the “triclinium”, located in a particularly panoramic position.
Villa Arianna, so named for the great mythological painting found on a wall, was excavated almost entirely between 1757 and 1762. The excavation at that time was conducted through underground explorations that only included the recovery of objects: therefore, the furnishings and the best preserved frescoes were taken and sent to the Bourbon Museum at the Royal Palace in Portici. A large part of the building is still underground. The decorative apparatuses testify the high standard of living and also the extremely refined taste of the owner. In larger rooms, mythological themes are represented mainly with almost life-size figures and the richness of the decorative apparatuses is completed with beautiful mosaics.